Whatever It Takes: The Student Success Renaissance at Paul Quinn College

For most college presidents, converting the school’s football field into an organic farm would be a career-ending move. For Michael Sorrell, it was just the beginning of a historic turnaround that’s occurred at the 146-year-old institution where he serves as president.

Facing sagging enrollment, financial challenges and growing questions about the relevance of its mission, Paul Quinn College was a school at the crossroads a decade ago. Since then, the Dallas-based historically-black college (HBCU) has undergone a stunning renaissance by reinventing itself as an urban work college that puts the needs of today’s students and their financial and career outcomes at the center of its mission. An outsider to higher education, Sorrell decided to demolish five abandoned campus buildings and then partnered with PepsiCo to transform the football field into the “We over Me Farm”, a working farm-to-table operation that provides food for the campus community and career-based learning for students. Razing the football field and building an urban farm was both a practical choice, but also a symbolic rallying cry for a “whatever it takes” administration committed to putting student needs first.

The story began years earlier. At 40 years old, Michael Sorrell was about to make a high-profit deal to join the management team of an NBA franchise. A former corporate securities lawyer who also spent time as a White House public affairs expert, Sorrell was a successful attorney and entrepreneur who built a business representing NBA players and doing crisis management work for Fortune 500 companies. Rather than pursue this lucrative opportunity in professional sports, he made the surprising and life-altering choice to become president of Paul Quinn College—an HBCU with a proud history that had fallen on difficult financial times—to change the lives of students too often forgotten by society.

In 20XX, with another presidential vacancy and long odds for keeping its doors open, Paul Quinn reached out to Sorrell and asked him to become their president. President Sorrell compromised with Paul Quinn offering to serve for 90 days as interim president. Torn between a high-powered career and his desire to give back, Sorrell quickly realized he was meant to make an impact at Paul Quinn College, launching an eleven-year tenure as president.

Michael Sorrell grew up in a household that valued education and expected great things. His mother and grandmother, both educated at historically black colleges, instilled in Michael the significant value an education would have on his life and the difference he would make because of it. “They both told me that they had tremendous expectations of who I would grow up to become. That I had a responsibility to lead and to become a voice for the voiceless, become an advocate for those who do not have advocates.”

This charge guided his path to the presidency. Today, President Michael Sorrell is working to repay the debt from college-educated parents and grandparents as an advocate for his students. As Paul Quinn College’s longest-serving president, Sorrell has taken steps to transform the school by introducing a new financial structure, redesigning the school’s model as an urban work college, and focusing on academic rigor, experiential learning, and entrepreneurship. Paul Quinn College’s approach focuses on addressing the most persistent problems of society, aiding all students who walk in the door, especially low-income students and first-generation college students.

“What sustained me is that people deserved better. No one deserves a failing institution that has betrayed their faith. When you educate students from under-resourced communities and places of scarcity, you have a different relationship than you do when you educate middle class and affluent students. When students come from under-resourced communities, we owe them nothing less than being the truest and best versions of ourselves as people and our institutions must be the truest, best versions of themselves.”

During President Sorrell’s tenure, PQC has won international acclaim, including winning the HBCU of the Year, achieving recognition as a member of the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll and numerous other recognitions. President Sorrell was recently named on Fortune Magazine’s list of the World’s Greatest Leaders (as #34) and is the only three-time recipient of the HBCU Male President of the Year Award (2018, 2016, and 2012), having been nominated a record six times.